Born as an outsider

Image by Viewminder via Flickr

Image by Viewminder via Flickr

I was born an outsider.

I’m left-handed. It was a curse. In the 70s and the 80s, teachers never liked a left-hander, and left-handedness was a defect that any honourable teacher had to correct.

As a young child, I was scorned for writing with my left hand. Teachers cast me the scary look. A cane would rain down on me if I switched to use my left hand. My classmates were spies. They would receive rewards from the teachers if they reported to the teachers whenever they saw me writing with my left hand.

I didn’t win. Now I write beautifully with my right hand, but I still use my left hand for all other tasks in life involving dexterity: using my computer mouse, playing ball games, using chopsticks, and even picking my nose.

Left-handed ghost

“Get out of my kitchen! You left-handed ghost!” My mother didn’t have much patience for a left-handed daughter either. The kitchen was always a chaotic war zone when kids were waiting to be fed. As a filial daughter, I would always help out in the kitchen. My tasks involved washing the vegetables and removing the worm-eaten parts of the leaves with holes in, and trimming every single end of a mountain of bean sprouts.

We caught a squid (locally called sotong) last year in Indonesia

We caught a squid (called sotong in Malay) last year in Indonesia

Another weekly task was dissecting squids. I first had to cut off their tentacles, peel off their skin, and carefully remove the cuttlebones. Very delicately, I must avoid cutting through their ink sac, or I would be squirted with black ink. My chopping tasks were endless: chopping ginger, meat, and shallots, or sometimes chopping pork with prawns together and mixing them well.

“You, the Left-Handed Ghost, are in my way!” My mother yelled that I was always in her way in the kitchen. She just couldn’t cope with the look of me wielding a cleaver with my left hand. My left-handedness with a cleaver annoyed and frightened her. She worried that I would chop my fingers off, so sometimes she would chuck me out of the kitchen to avoid the eyesore. “You’re so awkward in my kitchen!” Mum ranted and took over the chores.

Where do I belong?

As the youngest child in a family of adults could be the loneliest experience. I remember sleeping on the floor with two adult sisters. Some nights, they would discuss boys and exchange gossips in their secret language. As a kid, I was curious, “Tell me!” “I want to know!” However, according to the Chinese wisdom: “A kid should have ears, not a mouth.” Their stories were none of my business. So I learnt quickly not to interrupt. Very often, when I entered a room when my sisters were talking, their conversation would just halt. The presence of me had the ability to halt many conversations.

My brother died of leukaemia

My brother died of leukaemia aged 4

It was the norm that a child was hushed. In a crowded, boisterous environment, a child was mute. One day, when my father told me that he had hoped for a boy, not a daughter, I was not upset, because I grew up believing that I was found in a rubbish bin.

If you have immersed in the Chinese culture, you would know boys are more valued, because boys can carry the family surname. I am therefore never upset about this preoccupation with boys. However, I did rush to my mother for evidence. “Is it true that Father had wanted a boy, not me?” Mum answered truthfully, without any hesitation: “Exactly! Because your brother had died of leukaemia, your father, the Old Ghost, wanted a replacement. There were already too many girls in this house.”

I was meant to be an outsider.

“Your English is very good”

As a young student many years ago, I met some students from Hong Kong, who insisted on calling me a ‘Malay.’ I explained to them a Malay is another ethnic group and there was a clear distiction between a Malay and a Chinese, and both of them could be Malaysians. While I was studying in Taiwan, my friends were surprised I could speak Chinese. “But, if you’re from Malaysia, how could your Chinese be so fluent?” And, in the UK, people would ask, “But, if you’re a Chinese, how could your English be so good? How many years have you learnt English?”

Conversations like these often leave me mentally exhausted. Therefore, I’ve grown to be quieter, the older I become. Assumptions like these also reflect how some people see me: an outsider.

Floating sensation: floating on a Kelong (a floating house) on the sea in Indonesia last year

Floating sensation: floating on a Kelong (a floating house) on the sea in Indonesia last year

In my recent Blog Exercises on Lorelle on WordPress, I have agonised over the psychological reasons as to why I blog, pondered how to stay focused with more self-control, and more importantly, tried to discover my view of the world through my filtered lens. It’s dangerous, as I may reveal more than I had planned for 15 months ago when I started blogging in English. I may even understand who I am in this process of self-discovery. The thought is frightening.

I see the world as an outsider. This is my filtered lens. What do I see? How do I feel? I am passionate about living, but I am also very detached emotionally. Will this new perspective make my writing any different? How might this change my voice in my writing?

What about you? What are you writing about?

You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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35 thoughts on “Born as an outsider

  1. ShimonZ

    It’s very interesting, learning about your childhood and the difficulties you had being a bit different. I suppose many people are intolerant towards differences. Maybe it’s easier being different in England because you look Asiatic than being different in your own parents’ home.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Indeed, Shimon. To be ‘different’ in the West is easier for me. Even when people consider me ‘Japanese’, I wouldn’t correct them sometimes. It’s ‘fun’ sometimes to see how other see me, based on their understanding of the world. In a traditional Chinese family, girls are not given as much freedom, and being a different girl, life could be a bit more challenging. However, I think that modern families have changed. I’ve known a lot of Chinese people from very liberal background.

  2. Maxim Sense

    This brings me back to your student singing: “Chinese, Japanese what is this? dirty knees..”

    It may not be difficult to understand how the western world had embraced the fallacy of being ‘first world’ and consider all others as second and third world countries. Up till now, a lot of them had painted oriental countries as third world countries and all others within it (including its people) are third class. Probably, this is why they think it was just okay to tease, mock, even despise third world people. And this mindset had been passed on from generation to generation. They look at us as third world people who are inferior in so many things and in so many ways. So, they marvel at us when we are able to read, write and speak their language because as the inferior race we are not supposed to read, write and speak like them. Yet, we do not complain that there are so few of them who speak or are able to speak oriental languages. Maybe, because we had succumbed to their mindset that learning the oriental languages is no big deal.

    In fairness, a lot of them (first world people) have understood the super-mentality and superiority complex syndrome as utterly unfair yet they find it quite difficult to reverse that home-grown culture of biases and discrimination now. Yet, most of them, if not all, speak as advocates of equality, justice, fairness, and racial discrimination. The US, which has been touted as the bastion of freedom and democracy, and who gave us that time-honored notion that “all men are created equal”, is still suffering so much from the effects of ugly polarization due to racial discrimination. They should sweep their own backyards first before they try to examine their neighbor’s backyard.

    Now, it is not our fault if we question them on what moral ground they stand when they lecture us lengthily on the issues of equality, gender sensitivity, justice and fairness because they harbor the same issues and problems at home.

    Now, I know why China had hung an iron curtain before.

    1. Lorelle VanFossen

      Interesting, Maxim, that you would focus on the issues associated of racial and cultural discrimination and prejudice rather than the profound risk Janet took in exposing her inner most fears and beliefs to the world.
      It fascinates me that Janet’s writing always generates such a wide spread response. Each topic could be taken from the global to the micro, looked at from this way and that. For you, the labels put upon her because of her skillful language skills caught your attention. For me, it was the openness, the willingness to allow us a glimpse of the real Janet, the one who felt not just outside but outcast, even by those who should be closest to her and her loyalest defenders.
      It’s a mark of a truly profound writer to do this. Aren’t we so lucky to have someone in our midsts willing to be so truthful about things we need to learn about and have dialogue.

      1. Janet Williams Post author

        Very interesting reply, Lorelle. It’s the Death of the Author. The interpretations by different people are interesting. This is the charm of blogging.

        Throughout my youth, I was very affected by two novels, one is Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, and another is The Stranger, by Albert Camus. I grew up in a culture that I needed to know my place, and followed the rules accordingly based on my position assigned to me. As a small child living in an adult world, the urge of escape was strong and the feeling of an ‘outcast’ was unfortunately quite correct, in many situations.

        However, as an adult, I don’t feel that I was unloved. I feel that love is displayed in many forms, though a child would not have the ability to analyse that. A lot of Chinese parents don’t show affection, but they have love for their kids deep inside their hearts.

    2. Janet Williams Post author

      Maxim, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Certainly there’s a huge gap in understanding between many people in different worlds.

      Some people consider themselves to be more superior/inferior, but some people simply don’t understand how big the world is. The world in the age of the Internet doesn’t necessarily improve communications, because people tend to look for the information they want, to consolidate their own ideas, not to widen their scope of understanding.

      To be honest, as a child, we were also curious about the West, and as long as I wrote a piece of article criticising the west, complaining about their ‘bias’, highlighting our own ‘great values,’ I would get very high marks.

      With so many of us sharing different viewpoints, I hope ideas will be spread and understanding improved.

      1. Maxim Sense

        Thank you Lorelle and Janet. All of us are people reared and raised by our parents from different backgrounds, upbringings, and I would add, nationalities. Isn’t it wonderful that given all of these differences we are so open to try to understand each other? The mere fact that we are talking about the different subjects delved on in Janet’s post in a very civilized and professional manner is proof of diversity working in our favor.

        To be fair, both western and eastern societies do have their pros and cons. It is when one society tries to impose its own understanding of the world to other societies that problems begin to be encountered. I was speaking of facts, or my own personal experience at least, which is brought back to life from the “labels” Janet got. It was an imperfect fact, and if I may say even brutal fact, but which we cannot blame on anyone except that of man’s understanding of the world around him as may be influenced by the realities around him.

        Thank you, Janet, for this thought-provoking post and for broadening my understanding.

  3. snowbird

    An interesting and compelling post Janet. I can understand feeling “outside” of things and different.
    I was always different due to moving house every couple of years and having very unique, unusual parents. I think it made me far more self sufficient and independent as I was never too troubled by what people thought of me, and I was also a child who ran wild in the mountains, which was happiness for me. It broke my brother though, he simply couldn’t adapt, sadly. xxxx

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. Being an outsider, sometimes I feel a bit ‘surreal’, and I do feel I learn to cope with different environments easily. I think we are lucky we have the strength within us to cope with change, though it may not seem easy sometimes. I know that you love nature, and your blog about walking, narrow boating, wildlife and cycling are all so exciting and your life experiences are eye-opening for me.

  4. snowbird

    We are who we are, and we have to know what and who we as individuals….to thy own self be true. In the end, it doesn’t matter how we grew up, it’s about being true to our OWN individual personality, which can be stunted by family, religion culture etc…but in the end every individual has to be the person that they choose to be….circumstances permitting!xxxx

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  7. chennicole2013

    I found your blog through Lorelle. I liked what she said about the openness in your writing. It’s so easy to say what’s expected of us without giving serious thought to what we really think and feel.

    Don’t you just hate to trim the bean sprouts? It takes so long.

    By the way, did you know that Barak Obama is left handed?

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Nicole,

      Thank you so much for your encouraging message.

      I write with the help from Lorelle’s Blog Exercises, and I’ve enjoyed her guidance and found it an excellent discipline to stay focused on my blog.

      Bean sprouts — yes, every single one had to be trimmed by hands. I used to think if I could cut off the threads with a knife, but it just wouldn’t work. Snapping off the ‘threads’ and removing un-fresh ones were my regular manual jobs. I was very surprised to find out that bean sprouts in the supermarkets in England have already been trimmed.

      p/s: Yes — here is the list of left-handed presidents of the USA.

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  9. marshland

    Fascinating. I wonder if Indonesia is the same? I suffered at school for having a small limp, noticeable to anyone who cared but only commented on my those whom I became to despise. So I joined the rugby club, my mates were bigger and tougher. It solved the issue overnight. I am right handed, throw & bowl at cricket right handed but I’m left footed as was my father and I batted at cricket left handed and peculiarly throw darts equally as good/bad with both hands. I can drink ambidextrously (is that a word, he asks this lady from the other side of the world?). I eat Indo food the Dutch way though, fork and spoon. At school, because of the strict classroom seating arrangement, determined by term results, if you were left handed and sat next to a right handed kid, or vice versa, if your term results were higher/lower you could end up clashing elbows with every dot of the i and cros of the t. There was no compromise back then. Me and my mate Denis did more than a spot of elbow jousting over the years.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Fascinating! Thank you for sharing your childhood memory here.

      I played table tennis left-handed, and it confused many people, so I became the champion in table tennis in primary school.

      I understand ‘clashing elbows’ very well.

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  22. lauralistar

    Hi Janet,

    Thank you for this amazing post. It takes a lot of courage to write about something that makes you feel like you’re different than others. Maybe more people will step forward and be encouraged to talk about some of the things that make them feel as if they are an outsider. Maybe it will be because of you 🙂


    Laurali Star

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you Laurali Star.

      Like you, I have been following the advice from our friend Lorelle. She’s been inspiring and challenging, and she forced me to think harder. This post has touched many people’s hearts — a big surprise for me, and somehow my vulnerability connects to people, who feel vulnerable in many ways. Being an outsider is just a fact of life, and I had never set out to write a ‘sensational’ post.

      It just shows that you never know what you write may touch people’s heart one day. I didn’t expect the huge attention from the other side of the world, but feedback like yours is truly touching.

      Thank you for your beautiful words.

      1. lauralistar

        You’re so very welcome Janet.

        Your story is very inspiring and I think maybe it resonates with a lot of people because you can tell that you were being open, honest, and forthcoming. It’s refreshing to see someone open up like that. Being different is a topic that is relatable to a lot of people. Even people considered to be popular or outgoing often feel like an outsider to the rest of the world and no one knows how they really feel. Thank you for speaking openly about something that so many of us are afraid to say out loud. It’s very inspirational 🙂


        Laurali Star

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